Move over ‘Mormon’. On yer bike, ‘Once’. There’s a new West End musical that’s better than the both of you.
Admittedly, I say ‘new’ – ‘Merrily We Roll Along’ is actually 32 years old. But Maria Friedman’s revival marks the first time Stephen Sondheim’s notoriously troubled piece has played in a proper West End theatre, transferring to the Harold Pinter in the wake of its success at the teeny Menier Chocolate Factory.
It’s an apt choice of address, as it happens, because ‘Merrily’ shares a central conceit with Pinter’s ‘Betrayal’ in that both shows tell the chronologically reversed story of a trio of friends whose friendship falls apart, starting with the ‘bad’ present and ending with the ‘good’ past.
But ‘Merrily’ is a warmer, sadder, funnier and wordier affair than Pinter’s chilly masterpiece. It also has a lot more songs. It is just as exquisitely crafted however: it famously took Sondheim and co-writer George Furth more than a decade to beat ‘Merrily’ into shape after its disastrous 1981 Broadway opening, but now it gleams. And in her directorial debut, longtime Sondheim associate Friedman absolutely nails it: the individual scenes are light, tuneful and sassy, but as a whole they form something greater and more affecting.
The rhythm and flow of ‘Merrily’ in its entirety is poignant in the extreme, as the ghastly, coked-up little world presided over by Mark Umbers’s Hollywood producer Frank gradually dissolves into something more wholesome. The years roll back, the hangers-on return to their holes, and the shattered bonds between damaged Frank and his erstwhile best friends Mary (beautifully fragile Jenna Russell) and Charley (brilliantly awkward Damian Humbley) slowly heal and reknit, past Frank’s painful divorce, back to the days when he and Charley were young, eager songwriters.
Sassy, satirical and tear-jerking when necessary, Sondheim’s sharp, bright songs are some of the most likeable he’s written – full of rueful warmth and the odd moment of out-and-out silliness. Anchored by three impeccably human lead performances, a great ensemble and some wonderfully lurid period design from Soutra Gilmour, Friedman’s revival gathers tremendous emotional momentum as it rolls along.
Things flatten a touch in a last half hour that features a little too much of the gang as innocent eager beavers. But if the end is a high note, it’s a profoundly bittersweet one.